The new Greens’ Bill on community ownership seeks to grasp the economic opportunity offered by the energy transition, amending planning regulations to enable community co-ownership of all new renewable energy developments.
Lacking clear political leadership, the Irish state’s initiatives on the energy transition and community energy lack boldness. While discussions at the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate change are providing an opportunity to take stock, most debate on the subject is full of the dull language of grudging obligations to meet targets being (unjustly) imposed by foreign bodies, like the EU or International organisations. This type of immature language is used right throughout the published National Climate Change Mitigation Plan and in other policy documents. Through this uninspiring approach, we are on track to miss most of the international commitments that we have made, across a range of areas, including renewable energy.
Too long our communities have been excluded from the benefits of renewable energy, while having most of the inconveniences imposed on them. Given how developments have occurred to date, they could be forgiven for feeling that talk of an energy transition is really about the transfer of wealth from communities to developers and landowners. Even when projects do build in local ownership and benefits, lack of clear national guidelines are often a barrier. This was the case in a community wind project I worked on in Waterford recently. The ongoing review of Wind Development Guidelines were a shifting ground offering no clarity on issues of public concern, issues on which the project ultimately fell.
This lack of clarity and singular vision relates not only to wind. Our Department of Agriculture encouraged hundreds of Irish farmers to plant energy crops expecting a government Renewable Heat Incentive which was promised 5 years ago. It still hasn’t happened. Division and silo-thinking (which is a political responsibility) between our departments of energy and agriculture mean that there is no clarity for potential producers and processors of energy.
SEAI’s Sustainable Energy Communities and Better Energy Communities Programmes are steps in the right direction. These steps offer some technical and capital support for projects. However, there is still no explicit high level political commitment to develop a decentralised fully locally owned energy system. The new Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS) being proposed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment looks like it will continue the Irish state’s model of corporate-owned renewables, with token support for community involvement and ownership. That is why the current Bill on community ownership of renewables can be an important step along the road to an energy transition where everyone benefits.
This Bill will help jumpstart a national movement for energy independence in Ireland. Models for such a movement are not difficult to find. Germany now has more than a quarter of its electricity from renewable energy; more than half of the total installed renewable energy capacity is locally owned, with almost 1000 renewable energy cooperatives established. Germany and Denmark offer examples of resilient local energy economy. Closer to home, our green industrial revolution of local energy cooperatives could easily model itself on the movement founded by Horace Plunkett over 100 years ago, where, in just 10 years from 1885 to 1895, over 300 agricultural cooperatives were established with over 300,000 members.
Energy must be seen as a service to society, not as a means of wealth-extraction by private companies or state monopolies, facilitated by the state. People can be mobilised behind a vision of energy independence and sovereignty, and the benefits it brings. This requires bold decision making on land-use and energy and greater coordination between the departments of Energy and Agriculture. Along with our current Bill for community ownership, we must allow priority grid access for community energy; support microgeneration by introducing legislation allowing medium-size licensed energy suppliers and easing ComReg’s collateral requirements on community energy supply companies. We must also grasp the microgeneration opportunity for domestic energy production through rooftop solar and other technologies. There must also be support for those that have worked hard to secure energy sovereignty for the Irish people over the last few decades. This is why the Greens are proposing the establishment of a Just Transition Commission, where the rights of workers and local communities are protected against the impact of factory closures (such as the workers in Bord na Mona Peat Factories in Littleton in Tipperary).
The transition must be about improving the welfare of our people, to make Ireland a fairer, greener, wealthier country. Localising ownership of the means of energy production, and localising the benefits. Let’s do it.